There are two ways a team can respond to an 18-point loss like the one Arkansas basketball suffered Tuesday night: they can allow it to linger and potentially cost them a second loss, or they can learn from it and bounce back in the next game.
Arkansas will have an opportunity to prove their toughness and ability to move past their deflating loss to Tennessee when it plays Kentucky for the second time this season – this time in Bud Walton Arena. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. CT Saturday and the game will be televised on CBS.
The last time these teams met, the Razorbacks took care of business and earned their biggest road win of the season in an 88-73 beatdown over the Wildcats. At the time, both teams were flirting with the NCAA Tournament bubble and were in desperate need of wins.
Despite losing Round 1 of the Arkansas vs Kentucky series, the Wildcats had been playing some of their best basketball of the season prior to Wednesday’s loss to Vanderbilt at home. That can be partially attributed to losing star freshman Cason Wallace to an injury, but the Commodores also lost their best player and were already ahead when Wallace went down.
Now, Arkansas will cap its brutal three-game stretch by hosting Kentucky for a rematch after dropping back-to-back Quadrant 1 road games over the last week.
“I don’t have the metrics in front of me, but I’m assuming our SEC schedule was as tough as any team,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “It’s a very hard schedule to end the year. You play Saturday at Alabama. You lose a close game, a game that really came down to a possession or two. You fly home Sunday and then get on a plane Monday and go play Tennessee. And now we have a ranked team in Kentucky coming in on Saturday.”
NCAA Tournament Outlook
Arkansas basketball fans have been treated to back-to-back Elite Eight runs, but this year’s team heads into March with more injuries, question marks and inconsistencies than either of the last two rosters.
That said, this is the biggest month of the season and anything can happen – a fact not lost on forward Kamani Johnson, the only player being honored during Saturday’s Senior Day festivities.
“March is kind of like nut dropping time,” Johnson said on Thursday, apparently referring to squirrels and their kind of favorite food. “It’s when the men come to play basketball. That’s what it’s about. I think you get battle-tested in March. That’s why upsets happen. Nobody cares about what you did all year.”
His particular choice of words here apparently got a rise out of teammate Anthony Black, as the below video shows:
The latest bracketology from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still has Arkansas hovering around an 8 seed — partially due to its current two-game losing streak, even if both losses came on the road to Quad 1 teams, while Kentucky is slotted as a 6 seed.
After their loss to Alabama, the Razorbacks actually moved up from No. 15 to No. 14 in the NET rankings, thanks in part to a team in front of them losing, but also because the loss didn’t damage their resume. They again stayed put at No. 14 after losing to Tennessee before Creighton passed them with a monstrous win over Georgetown Wednesday night, knocking them back down to No. 15.
The Hogs are now 3-8 in Q1 games and only a combined 5-9 in games outside of the Natural State. Some fans might be wondering how Arkansas could even be a top-30 team with those numbers, much less as high as No. 15 in the NET rankings. In short, it’s because of how good the Razorbacks’ non-conference schedule was.
The Hogs have only two Quad 4 games on their resume – tied for the lowest number of Q4 games among teams in the top-15 of the NET – and one of those came in the Maui Invitational against Louisville, who was not expected to be as bad as it’s been. The vast majority of Arkansas’ non-conference wins count towards their 10-1 Q3 record – and a few, like Oklahoma and Bradley, were Q2 wins.
While most top teams win all (or most) of their non-conference matchups, Arkansas’ “mediocre” non-conference wins actually hold more weight than most of those from teams above them in the NET rankings – ultimately balancing out their sub-par record against Q1 teams.
“You handle your business the first part of the year and that has a big impact once you get to the end of the season,” Eric Musselman said. “Our players did a great job of playing very, very, very well in non-conference and won some really good games against some very good competition. (Anthony) Ruta did a really good job of looking at teams like Fordham and some of the other teams that have played really, really well in their conference.”
This balanced resume provides a safety net of sorts – no pun intended – for the Hogs even if they were to lose to Kentucky on Saturday, which would drop their Q1 record to 3-9.
Three Q1 losses in a row doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the Razorbacks or their fans, but strictly from a resume standpoint, it likely wouldn’t hurt them enough to drop them out of the NCAA Tournament entirely, either. Ending their season with a Q1 win over Kentucky, however, could potentially boost the Hogs up to a 7 seed if the cards fall right – as well as work wonders for their confidence heading into tournament season.
Injury Bug Biting Hard
Arkansas has dealt with its fair share of injuries this season – headlined by the season-ending injury to Trevon Brazile (torn ACL) and prolonged absence of their projected leading scorer in Nick Smith Jr. (knee). Makhel Mitchell and Devo Davis have also missed a game each due to injury and personal reasons, while players like Anthony Black and Ricky Council IV have played through minor injuries.
Just how much injuries have impacted the Razorbacks – and how they’ve still been solid despite all of them – is illustrated in this chart:
Fortunately, the Razorbacks seem to be trending toward a comforting level of health – aside from Brazile – at just the right time. Smith is back from injury and has averaged 18.0 points since returning to the starting lineup two weeks ago.
However, the injury bug seems to have bit Kentucky at the most inopportune time. The Wildcats were already without perhaps their best on-court leader in point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who has been sidelined since Feb. 4 with an ankle injury. The 5-foot-10 senior underwent an “unrelated minor procedure” on Wednesday morning.
Then, less than two minutes into the second half of their loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, freshman guard Cason Wallace went down with a lower-leg injury, causing him to leave the court for the remainder of the game.
“They X-rayed (Wallace), he’s fine,” Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said after the loss. “It’s not swollen. We’ll see. I’m hoping he’ll be okay for Saturday, but I don’t know.”
Musselman noted that – due to these comments from Calipari – his team will be preparing for Wallace to suit up on Saturday.
Arkansas vs Kentucky Game Preview
Without their two best point guards for the second half against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats struggled considerably to get anything going on offense. Shooting guards Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick were left with the ball-handling duties — and it did not go well.
The two guards combined to shoot 6 of 24 from the field, including 2 of 12 from long range, and scored only 20 total points. They also combined for no assists and 4 turnovers. Reeves and Fredrick are both excellent shooters, but neither are experienced in running the offense with the ball in their hands.
If the Wildcats are indeed without Wallace – who was the only positive factor for Kentucky last time they faced Arkansas, tallying 24 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks on 59% FG and 33% 3P shooting – Davonte Davis, Nick Smith Jr and Anthony Black should have a field day guarding inexperienced ball handlers in this matchup.
Even if Wallace does play, the Hogs did an exceptional job of slowing down every other Wildcat that saw the court in that February game. Reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe was held to only 7 points on 6 shot attempts. Perhaps even more impressively, he was limited to only 7 rebounds – including 3 offensive rebounds – against the Hogs. He averages 12.8 total rebounds and 5.1 offensive rebounds on the season.
Chris Livingston (6-foot-6 freshman) was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer against Arkansas, tallying 13 points on 5 of 10 shooting from the field. On the season, he averages only 6.4 points per game. His 13 against the Hogs is tied for his second-highest scoring total of the season.
Don’t be surprised if he again plays a bigger role in the rematch against Arkansas – which will be primarily focused on slowing down Tshiebwe (16.5 PPG), Reeves (13.4 PPG) and Jacob Toppin (12.0 PPG). However, if Wallace is unable to play, Musselman should be able to expend more defensive resources on guys that hurt them in the last matchup like Livingston.
Daimion Collins is another name to watch for Kentucky. He played only 8 minutes against the Hogs last time, but managed to score 7 points on an efficient 75% shooting – including a buzzer-beater to end the first half. He hasn’t played more than 8 minutes since Jan. 31, but he clearly has the talent to hurt the Hogs should they lean more into their bench due to being short-handed.
Makhel and Makhi Mitchell had arguably their worst combined outing for Arkansas last time out against Tennessee, combining for a meager 2 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 3 blocks while shooting 0 of 2 from the field. By contrast, they combined for 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds and 5 blocks in their first game against Kentucky.
“If you look at our blocked shots and how we have – for the duration of the season – been a team that’s done a great job of protecting the lane,” Musselman said. “We would have liked to have gotten better the last two games (at Alabama and Tennessee), we’ve got to improve that area, certainly, against Kentucky.”
The Mitchells could easily be the deciding factor in this rematch against Kentucky. If they’re able to somewhat replicate their success against Tshiebwe, Arkansas stands a great chance of ending its season on a high note. If they come out flat like they did against Tennessee, though, the Hogs could easily find themselves entering the SEC Tournament on a three-game losing streak.
What to Watch in Arkansas vs Kentucky
The last time these teams met, a freshman guard dictated the pace for his team and scored roughly 33% of his team’s points while tallying an incredibly well-rounded stat line. No, it wasn’t Arkansas’ Nick Smith Jr. – he was still out with a knee injury. It was Kentucky’s Cason Wallace.
This time around, Smith is back in the fold for Arkansas and there’s a real possibility that Wallace misses his second game of the season. Not only was Wallace Kentucky’s main point guard and best offensive weapon the first time it played Arkansas, he’s been its best point-of-attack defender all season.
The Wildcats still possess considerable length, but without Wallace, the Razorback guards – specifically Smith – could find that breaking down their defender and getting into the paint will be a far less daunting task.
Even if Wallace is able to suit up, the additional firepower of Smith should provide the Hogs with a boost offensively, as it did for their first three games since returning to the starting lineup. Excluding their abysmal 57-point outing on the road against Tennessee’s No. 1-ranked defense, the Razorbacks were averaging 88.0 points on 54% FG and 45% 3P shooting in their first three games with Smith back as a starter.
Finding their way back to that offensive rhythm will be vital – not only for their next game against Kentucky, but also for any hopes of winning upcoming tournament games. Being on their homecourt one final time could play a big factor in straightening out any offensive woes they faced against the Volunteers.
Game Prediction – Arkansas vs Kentucky
Just because Arkansas won the first matchup against Kentucky on the road doesn’t guarantee anything for Round 2 – though it should inspire some level of confidence. The Razorbacks are still 3-8 in their last 11 meetings with the Wildcats – though they’ve won the last three in a row for the first time since the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
Losing Cason Wallace for this game would likely be the death blow for Kentucky – though Tennessee losing its star guard did little to deter it from beating Arkansas by 18 earlier in the week. Musselman will surely use that as an example of why his team cannot afford to take this game lightly, regardless of Wallace’s status.
The addition of Nick Smith Jr to the offense – along with a growing sense of urgency after a big loss and mere days separating them from tournament season – will provide enough of a spark for the Razorbacks to bounce back offensively.
Without Wallace, the Hogs should hold Kentucky to below its SEC average of 71.8 points per game – and even if Wallace does play, Arkansas desperately needs to get its feet back on the ground defensively after allowing 75 points on 50% shooting to the Volunteers.
In their last chance to view this team in Bud Walton Arena, the Razorback crowd will fuel their team on both sides of the ball, but especially on the defensive end. Smith will lead the way in scoring as Arkansas makes it four in a row over the Wildcats for the first time in program history.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Kentucky
Date: Saturday, March 4
Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 1 p.m. CT (CBS)
ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 69% chance to win
Check out what Eric Musselman and Anthony Black had to say about the upcoming Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup:
Need a refresher on how the last Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup went? Here is our recap + some highlights:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…